Trenton Moss

By Trenton Moss


Ever worked with a leader like that? Someone who leads by instruction, force and control – “it’s my way or the highway”.

This style of leadership usually leads to despondent teams with low levels of communication and engagement. Why challenge and debate when you’ll just get shouted down?

Teams that are based solely on this command-and-control leadership style are likely to develop a culture of non-acceptance, disengagement and regressive behaviour. Not great.

So, if coercive leadership is a negative leadership style then why would you choose to use it? Let’s consider three scenarios within modern product teams:

Scenario 1: The lost team

You’re working on the launch of an exciting new proposition. Despite good initial progress, the team has encountered some mixed and contradictory feedback from stakeholders. It’s left them unsure how to progress.

The UXer says she needs brand input, the designer says they need wireframes to work from, and the product manager is struggling to get them to commit to anything resembling a plan. They’ve reached a stalemate and don’t know what to do next.

In this scenario, a good leader would employ coercive leadership to provide clear direction for the team to progress. Clear instruction about who will do what at what times can unblock the team and help them overcome the immediate hurdle in front of them.

Remember, coercive leadership does not always require you to shout at people! In this circumstance – applied correctly – it is more likely to be referred to as “strong” or “directional”.

The leader will only use this leadership style to overcome this obstacle, before reverting back to a more positive and inclusive style.

Clear instructions about who will do what at what times can unblock the team
Use coercive leadership in very short bursts to overcome obstacles (before reverting back to positive and inclusive leadership)

Scenario 2: The team straying close to the edge

One of the teams you look after is working on a key user journey. This is where your company makes all their money, and so any changes need to be made very carefully.

You discover that the team isn’t following the right process and are ready to release changes before getting the results of an A/B test.

In this scenario, the team is putting the business at risk. This isn’t the time to be learning on the job.

In times of significant risk, coercive leadership and clear instruction are essential to mitigate any potential risk. Again, use this technique for a short period of time to remove any risk, establish a clear process and enforce that the process is followed.

Scenario 3: The underperforming individual

One of your team members is in a funk. You’ve noticed a decline in their attitude and performance. You know that they’ve recently brought a new baby into the family, which is causing sleep problems, but they’re really started dropping the ball and it’s causing friction with colleagues.

You’ve spoken to them a few times, but nothing seems to get through. Feedback on their performance has reached senior management, and they have the knives out. They don’t understand (or care) about personal circumstances.

Again, this is a good scenario to deploy your coercive leadership skills. Making your expectations clear and dictating tasks and timelines will likely save their job (and if not, they can always absolve some responsibility to you).

Again command-and-control leadership should be used sparingly until your colleague is back on their feet, at which point you can revert to a more inclusive leadership style.

Making your expectations clear and dictating tasks and timelines could potentially save them their job

Mix and match styles for maximum effectiveness

A good leader is able to acknowledge the different leadership styles and know when to deploy each.

Even command-and-control leadership has its place, with the best leaders having the self-awareness to use it very sparingly. The rest of the time, they’ll be leaning on positive leadership to generate a healthy and sustainable team culture.

Team Sterka teaches leadership styles to product teams as part of our People Skills as a Service® programme. Check out our full curriculum for more details.

Photo by Headway on Unsplash

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    Research‌ ‌carried‌ ‌out‌ ‌by‌ ‌Harvard‌ ‌University,‌ ‌the‌ ‌Carnegie‌ ‌Foundation‌ ‌and‌ Stanford‌ ‌Research‌ ‌Center‌ ‌found‌ ‌that‌ ‌85%‌ ‌of‌ ‌job‌ ‌success‌ ‌comes‌ ‌from‌ ‌having‌ well‐developed‌ ‌soft‌ ‌and‌ ‌people‌ ‌skills.‌